Hearing Loss: A Visual Comparison

Most people unfamiliar with hearing loss seem to visualize it as a continuum. Either you hear “more,” or you hear “less,” and all you need to do is turn up the sound.

Not quite. Hearing loss tends to be more patchy. For example, higher-frequency sounds are usually the first to go, particularly with age-related hearing loss. This usually means the person will miss out on sounds like and z; or they’ll confuse similar sounds like t, p, and k.

A visual representation of hearing loss would most likely look something like this:

Visual impairment vs hearing impairment
(Pardon the title; it came with the graphic.)

 So, that leads us to the question: what does hearing with hearing aids or cochlear implants look like?

Well, the fundamental difference between the two is this: hearing aids amplify the sound input your inner ear and brain can perceive; cochlear implants replace your natural sound input with an electronic substitute.

I wish I could take credit for the concept behind this next illustration, but I saw it on another hearing loss blog eons ago, back in the mists of the time when people still used AOL and MySpace (much to the chagrin of humanity). I’ve replicated it below:

color wheel comparison

What sounds might “look” like with hearing aids and cochlear implants.

This, incidentally, is why you’ve got to be severely to profoundly deaf in order to qualify for a cochlear implant; the implant destroys what little residual hearing you have, and the substitute will be a “pixelated” version of the real thing. Implantation becomes a better trade-off when you don’t have enough usable residual hearing to begin with.

Deafness: Is It Really A Disability?

In college, I was taught about two approaches to deafness: the medical approach, and the cultural approach. Essentially, the medical approach regards deafness as something to be fixed or cured; the cultural approach regards deafness as something to be embraced and celebrated. Now, I won’t lie: after years of fighting to be “normal,” the Deaf community was a welcome respite that helped me solidify my identity outside of my hearing loss. But that niggling feeling remained: it wasn’t the whole story, especially when it came to job-hunting.

Deafness is pretty unique in that it’s one of the few disabilities that affords near-complete independence. We can drive, we can move around, we can hold down jobs in any physical and intellectual capacity. The only thing we– most of us– struggle to do is communicate in a hearing world.

Unfortunately, that last one is a pretty big deal, especially in networking and securing employment; or in seeking information and education. It’s much like being a perpetual foreigner– without communication, you miss out on language, social cues, and local culture. And not everyone is willing to accommodate, or they don’t know how.

In part, that’s what gave rise to Deaf culture. At various points throughout recent history, a bunch of deaf people got together, worked out their own communication and social norms, and out of it came a distinct language and culture. Over time, a social network for education and employment also developed– it wasn’t and still isn’t uncommon for Deaf people to find jobs in residential schools, ASL courses, and municipal social work.

Outside of those niches, however, our options become… more complicated. A whole lot of  service and sales professions– for example, reception, hospitality, and nursing– rely heavily on verbal communication. At least, as most people understand it. Mind you, several deaf people have found workarounds for succeeding in these types of jobs (many of whom are cuers!)*; often, their biggest challenge lay in convincing their employers that they could do it, albeit in a different way. Quite a few have just gone ahead and started successful businesses, notably in Austin, Texas.

These people, however, are a bit of a rarity.

A paradox: if deafness isn’t a disability in most senses of the word, then why do so many of us end up on SSDI? Or worse, straddling the poverty line?

Any objective measure comes up with two answers:

  1. Deaf people struggle to access secondary information in an auditory environment. We don’t usually overhear things like hearing people do; direct communication is how we learn and retain information. This has major implications for education.
  2. It’s harder to convince employers to hire and retain deaf employees at a living wage. We take longer to find jobs, and we get promoted at slower rates.

The best reconciliation I’ve heard for that paradox so far came from this Australian deaf blogger,** who defined deafness as a social disability. Once I thought of it that way, all those niggling pieces in my mind finally fell into place. See, one of my biggest hurdles in the Great 2014-2015 Job Search was networking at social events and job fairs. Imagine a patchwork conversation like this:

Me: So what kind of job do you do?
Them: Oh, I work at …. [unintelligible]
Me: Say again?
Them: [unintelligible] administrations at [unintelligible] in Dallas.
Me: Oooh. Administration? That sounds interesting.
Them: Yeah, we do a lot of paperwork and [unintelligible].

Not really a whole lot to work with, so the conversation peters out. And that happens everywhere: church, work, parties, social events. Building relationships is the whole point of networking, and how do you fluidly do that with persistent communication breakdowns?

The social model also explains why deaf people so often flourish in a variety of roles within deaf/disability/diversity-related occupations. Those occupations are designed to facilitate deaf-friendly communication, which in turn enables deaf people to build personal connections with coworkers, supervisors, and educators.

We’re not disabled, for the most part, unless our environment makes it that way.


*This does not include the relatively few professions where safety unequivocally relies on verbal communication, like armed services, police field work, and firefighting. I do know deaf people who work in these professions, but they tend to be in volunteer or support roles, not in active duty.

**Sadly, I lost the link to the Australian deaf blogger, because I suck. If anybody knows who I’m talking about, please feel free to drop me a line so I can credit him. It’s really an excellent article.

If People Treated Vision Loss Like They Do Hearing Loss

“You need to be able to see in order to succeed.”

“Stare harder at this page. Stare harder.”

“Well, what if we just turned up the light a bit? Would that help? Yes, I know you said you can’t see at all, but what if…”

“Here!” *grabs arm* “Let me do everything for you. Just sit down over there. No, no, it’s fine. Obviously your eyesight is inextricably linked to the function of your arms and legs.”

*waves* “Can you see this?” *waves even more furiously* “What about THIS?” *transforms into human windmill* “How about THIIIS?!”

via GIPHY

“Have you thought about getting [insert expensive medical option that inevitably requires surgery and upkeep]?”

“I know Braille!” *punches random holes in piece of paper*

“But how could you possibly live without seeing the works of Michelangelo or Picasso?”

“It’s not our fault you crashed into that table even though we switched everything around the other day without telling you. You need to pay more attention.”


And now I’m going to bet within the week (nay, the day), someone’s going to leave a comment telling me that blind people do get these comments.

How to Write about the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

For three years I worked at www.DeafandHoH.com as an editor and writer (Hi Senthil!). Naturally, this entailed a lot of reading about the d/hh community– most of it from hearing writers who had no experience whatsoever with that world. Not an issue per se, but I often ended up having to correct a few assumptions.

There is a right way and a wrong way to write about people with hearing loss. The finer details vary by person– and the best way to find out is to ask– but essentially, the single most important bit to remember is this:

Focus on the person, not the hearing loss.

As a general rule, the only time a person’s hearing loss really needs to be mentioned is in the introductory paragraph, or when it’s directly pertinent—like communicating with hearing peers, or getting accommodations. And, for the most part, hearing loss doesn’t really affect anyone’s ability to do anything except hear, and in some cases communicate, if we’re talking a primarily verbal environment. Take this, for example:

“Despite his hearing loss, he is an accomplished artist.”

OK, look, I’m deaf. I draw and paint. And my first reaction is, he’s deaf, not blind. (Even then, I’m pretty sure there are fantastic blind artists out there who have figured out how to make it work.)

I see this a lot with sports, by the way. You could have this 300-lb. behemoth who can strategically weave through a mob of linebackers with ballerina-level grace and finesse, and some journalist out there would still natter on about the obstacles he faced– of course, referring to his hearing loss.

To be fair, hearing loss is not exactly a picnic, because we do live in a predominantly hearing and auditory world. We will need to find workarounds, and that’s worth mentioning. But that’s just it: they are workarounds, not this insurmountable Wall to be conquered every time we have to do anything. Hell, sometimes it’s even an advantage: I draw and paint because I am an incredibly visual person, and my deafness had a lot to do with that.

For most deaf and hard of hearing people, it is just part of learning to adapt, and many of us aren’t comfortable with being put on a pedestal for living out their daily life, or serving as a stand-in to “inspire” someone. Stella Young has an excellent TED talk on the objectification of inspiration, which is worth a watch: http://www.ted.com/talks/stella_young_i_m_not_your_inspiration_thank_you_very_much/transcript?language=en.

Incidentally, this can be a difficult line to walk, even for me. When in doubt, ask someone who’s d/hh. Preferably, ask several. A good place to start, though, is to avoid the following terms, and any like them:

  • Barrier
  • Obstacle
  • Challenge
  • Inspiration
  • Overcome
  • Disability

So. That’s the big one to watch out for. Couple other writing no-no’s I’d include are:

Overt/excessive references to sound. Especially puns. “Sound and Fury,” “Hearing with Her Eyes,” and “World of Silence” are the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Truthfully, I tend to see these as low-hanging fruit at best, and lazy writing at worst.

…Maybe just leave them out altogether. The thing is, we’re deaf. For most of us, sound is just not a huge part of our daily lives. I mean, I don’t even notice the absence of sound most times. I don’t have the feeling that it “should” be there (except when I’m wearing my implant, then I’ll start making random tapping noises just to make sure the battery’s working). Even a lot of late-deafened adults find that they just don’t miss it all that much.

Don’t use the term hearing impaired. This is more of a gentle heads-up than anything else since it is not common knowledge. Although I don’t personally care about “hearing impaired,” a lot of people find it distasteful and even deeply offensive because to them, it implies “brokenness,” or that the person needs to be “fixed.” Unless the person you’re writing about uses that terminology or is OK with it, best to leave that term out of your journalistic vocabulary altogether. “Deaf and hard of hearing,” although admittedly a mouthful, is usually a better substitute.

This feels like a woefully short primer, but the crux of it is, we’re people. Hearing loss/deafness is just one part of our lives. Write about us as people, and you probably won’t veer too far off course. Honestly, that holds true for any group no matter the demographic.

Oh! You’re deaf? Here’s some braille.

It seems just about every other d/hh person out there has a story about clueless people offering them unnecessary “accommodations.” You know, the ones where they tell a receptionist that they’re deaf, and she hands out materials in braille, or they tell the airport staff that they’re deaf, and bam, out comes the wheelchair.

Somehow, my whole life, I’d missed out on this defining experience… until one fateful day, when I was 25.

I’d arranged to meet with some friends at a nearby Mexican restaurant, so I walked in, pointed to my ears, and said “Hi, just so you know, I’m deaf. I’m meeting friends here. Table for three, please,” while holding up three fingers. The hostess, a lady in her early twenties, went “Oh!”, held up a finger, and bounced over to a cabinet in the back. She pulled out this giant white binder, carried it back to the front desk, and flipped it open. I looked down to see rows of raised dots: braille.

Taken aback, I waved my hands and said, “Oh, no, no, I’m deaf. I just need the regular menu, please. And table for three.” Again, the “Oh!” and the finger and the bouncing back to the cabinet, whereuponwhich[*] she pulled out another Giant White Binder and flopped it open on the front desk. I looked down.

Spanish.

The woman gave me a giant white binder full of menu items in Spanish.

Quite at my wits’ end, I thanked her again, grabbed the regular menu, and repeated that I just needed a table for three. After some back-and-forth she finally led me to an empty table in the back, where I proceeded to Facebook about it to the world.

The best part? This happened in Austin, Texas.

Five minutes’ walk away from the Texas School for the Deaf.


[*] yes, whereuponwhich is a real word. Because I said so.

Talk to the Experts!

If there’s just one thing I could tell anybody trying to learn more about the myriad of issues involved in deafness, it’d be this:

If you want to learn more about Cued Speech, ask someone who uses Cued Speech. If you want to learn more about American Sign Language, ask someone who uses American Sign Language. Same for cochlear implants, hearing aids, visual phonics, whatever. And take their word for it. Don’t patronize by implying that they’re an outlier. And don’t mix ’em up– that is, don’t expect an in-depth, balanced view on Alexander Graham Bell or cochlear implants from a 70-year-old Deaf signer. Likewise, a spoken-language proponent may not be terribly knowledgeable about nor sympathetic to Deaf Culture and ASL.

This isn’t to say that you can’t share opinions and resources. But like any other community, the d/hh population has its share of controversial topics, especially regarding children. Bias is always, always a factor. So is lack of knowledge and direct experience. It’s worse if the community itself tends to be rather homogeneous. As a result, misinformation can spread quickly, with no one to correct these. And I can assure you, I’ve seen my share of these with Cued Speech, especially in deaf education.

This isn’t necessarily deliberate, by the way. In my experience, most educational professionals are simply not aware of Cued Speech. If they are, they fall into four broad categories:

1) They don’t know of anyone who uses it and/or have not seen the research, so they may assume that it doesn’t work.

2) They think it’s another variant of Visual Phonics and/or may not see it as a viable communication option.

3) They don’t see the need for it, citing that they use Signed English or a Bi-Bi approach with ASL.

4) They are open to it, but don’t know of any local resources nor demand for it.

Likewise, most d/hh people don’t use or see Cued Speech in action, although most people I meet are very accepting of the fact that I use it, and many are curious about how it works. But for the most part, they don’t know anything beyond what I showed them. Often, a good portion of our initial conversation is debunking misconceptions about Cued Speech.

As for those who had experience with it, including me, most of the feedback has been very positive. I did meet a few who had tried Cued Speech and decided it didn’t work for them, either because of resources or because they just didn’t ‘click’ with it. And that’s fair; everyone is different. The key here is that they tried it out for themselves, and formulated their opinions based on what they had personally encountered. More than that, these people could share the nuances that factored into their situation: a strong family network, mental and physical health, finances, access to resources, etc.

This, by the way, applies to anything in the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Take any second-hand experience with a grain of salt.